More telling evidence that the airspace over Syria remains a conflicted and dangerous mess emerged this week in the form of a video of French Rafales carrying SCALP EG cruise missiles for strikes. And make no mistake – it’s a mess seemingly dictated by Russian action and coalition reaction.
French Rafales seen using stealthy SCALP EG cruise missiles that cost about a million dollars each and have a range of 540 nautical miles.
It has been more than 16 months since coalition aircraft began bombing operations in Syria. At the time, it was uncertain if Assad’s fledgling air defense network would challenge U.S. and other coalition aircraft. Stealthy F-22s, radar-hunting F-16CJ “Wild Weasels,” and jamming aircraft were used just in case it happened.
It was quickly realized that such a scenario would not come to pass, as coalition strikes — which were (and still are) limited to ISIS and other known terror group targets — largely benefited the Assad regime. Additionally, Assad’s forces were shattered after years of civil war, and so the country’s air defenses were spotty at best.
Soon, the U.S. and its coalition partners realized that they had free-range over the country, although their focus was in the eastern half of Syria, where ISIS’s de-facto capital of Al Raqqah is located and where major ISIS-related battles were taking place. Still, increasing key bombing missions in support of anti-Assad forces across the country was a looming objective.
Fast forward to today, and the coalition appears to be far from declaring air supremacy over Syria. In fact, Russia’s heavy presence in Western Syria, with its formidable S-400 air defense system and enhanced armed fighter patrols, both of which were put in place after Turkey downed a Russia Su-24 attack jet, seems to have made it an area where manned coalition aircraft simply do not operate.
France’s recent use of million-dollar stealthy cruise missiles, designed to be used for standoff attacks against targets in highly defended airspace, is a sign that there are areas of Syria where the coalition feels their assets are highly vulnerable. These missiles were used on targets near war-torn Aleppo, which is located in the northwest corner of Syria, an area that Russia is highly engaged in and deep within the S-400’s engagement envelope.
Russia has also fired cruise missiles at targets in Syria over the last few months—throngs of them, in fact, including air, submarine and ship-launched variants. This was clearly done to showcase Russian power-projection abilities and for domestic propaganda, as well as for marketing these weapons for sale on a world stage. In the end, this squandered use of such expensive weaponry, fired from such long-ranges, was really less impressive than Russia, and many in the media for that matter, would have liked you to believe. The same could be said for Russia’s air war overall. Yet in France’s case, the use of SCALP EG missiles to hit targets in Aleppo was likely borne out of a very different necessity.
There’s no need to use a cruise missile against a target located in a country where there is no official enemy with potent air defense capabilities. The firing of SCALP cruise missiles at targets on Syria’s coast would indicate that Russia remains a very uncertain variable in the Syrian air war, maybe now more so than ever.
It also shows that the U.S. and its allies are widely reactionary to Russia’s actions, not the other way around. This is an alarming reality that few in the Obama Administration, or at the Pentagon for that matter, would like to admit.
The recent uptick in coalition unmanned aircraft operations, something that Russia bemoaned, is also likely a sign of this reactionary change in tactics. Once again, all of this came after the Russians installed its formidable S-400 air defense system at their air base south of Latakia, near the central Syrian coast, and after Turkey shot down their Su-24 for a slight border incursion.
We also know that Royal Air Force aircraft fly from Cyprus, over the eastern Mediterranean, and then through Turkey before entering Syria. This inconvenient route avoids the heart of Russia’s air power and air defenses, as well as a Russian air defense capable cruiser on station off Syria’s coast.
The re-positioning of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is also perhaps yet another sign of how volatile Russia’s air defenses in Syria are. Leaving the carrier and its flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean seems extremely logical as its aircraft could, at least theoretically, directly fly over the Syrian coast to strike ISIS targets efficiently. Additionally, this would keep the carrier close to its home country and the many NATO assets that sail the Mediterranean. Yet the carrier was quickly moved to the Persian Gulf. Now it has to traverse Kuwait and Iraq just to reach Syria, although it does not have fly over Russian air defenses to get there. The distance from Syria’s western shore to Al Raqqah is about 160 miles, while the distance from the Kuwaiti shore to Al Raqqah is 700 miles! Once again, it seems like manned coalition aircraft will do whatever possible to avoid western Syria.
With all these factors in mind, when it comes to the air war over Syria, Russia is largely the one deciding who, or at least what, goes where—even if indirectly. This is not a good development for the U.S. and its allies, especially after almost a year and a half of operations over Syria. It also underlines that to the coalition, Russia does indeed pose a threat to its manned aircraft.
Whether this is due to a perceived lack of restraint and quality command and control capability on behalf of Russia’s military, or downright malice, remains unclear.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.